Could a Gas Shortage Happen Again in Charlotte?
The Colonial Pipeline panic illustrates Charlotte’s back-row position on the fuel supply line—and the prospect of another mad rush to the pumps
On the evening of Tuesday, May 11, NBC Nightly News aired a segment on the domestic story of the week: A cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, the larger of the two oil and gas systems that connect the refineries of the Gulf Coast to the eastern part of the country, had compelled drivers to make massive, frantic fuel purchases that emptied reserves and drove up prices.
“You can see hundreds of cars here, and this is just one gas station,” reporter Tom Llamas effused. “Drivers here tell me they’re waiting up to an hour. That’s where the line starts. We can’t even see where it ends.”
Alert Charlotteans—at least those watching television and not waiting up to an hour—recognized the setting: the Costco on Tyvola Road near Interstate 77. It wasn’t a random choice for NBC. Throughout the weeklong conniption, Charlotte and North Carolina outdid their Southeastern neighbors in the degree and thoroughness of what one national organization has dubbed “petronoia.”
The night the NBC report aired, 14.7% of North Carolina stations were out of gasoline, compared to 9.6% in Virginia, 9.4% in Georgia, and 7.5% in South Carolina. By the next night, the North Carolina figure had ballooned to 74% (compared to 56% in Virginia, 53% in South Carolina, and 50% in Georgia). Charlotte hit its peak on the morning of Saturday, May 15, when an astonishing 74.6% of the city’s stations—three of every four—had empty gasoline tanks.
So are we predisposed, to a degree not found in Richmond or Spartanburg or Macon, to hoard fuel when there’s a hint of a shortage? Maybe—but the geography of, and limited access to, the major fuel pipelines that carry gas to the East Coast happen to shortchange the Southeast’s two largest metropolitan areas, Atlanta and Charlotte. (At one point, 73.4% of Atlanta’s gas stations were empty.)
“These are two of the biggest markets that have two of the fewest possibilities to get resupplied,” says Patrick De Haan, the head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy, who collected the statistics above and tweeted them and others throughout the ordeal. Colonial, which carries up to 2.5 million barrels of fuel per day from Houston to New Jersey through a system of pipes as much as 40 inches wide, is the larger of the two major pipelines that run throughout the Southeast, along a route similar to I-85. The other, the Plantation Pipeline, which begins near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and ends at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., can carry as much as 720,000 barrels. Both pipelines run through Charlotte.
States and cities close to the beginnings and ends of those two systems—Louisiana and Mississippi, or New Jersey and Delaware—suffered far fewer fuel shortages than the Carolinas and Georgia. “The epicenter of outages was in the middle of two markets: the Gulf Coast market and the New York Harbor market. Right in the smack-dab middle? Atlanta, Charlotte,” De Haan says. “So there’s very few options.” To complicate matters, he says, barges and ships can carry fuel quickly to markets near coastlines. That’s not an option for Charlotte or Atlanta.
The primary alternative to pipeline delivery is trucking, which continues to struggle after more than a year of COVID. Thousands of tanker truck drivers left the business because jobs dried up during lockdown and because drivers were afraid to make city-to-city deliveries during a pandemic, says Tom Kloza, the global head of energy analysis for the Maryland-based Oil Price Information Service (the source of the “petronoia” neologism). Driver training schools closed during the lockdown, too, which, he says, “choked off the pipeline of new haulers.”
North Carolina’s rapid population growth is still another factor: The more people who live in cities like Charlotte, the more tanks need filling. And when everyone decides at the same time that they need to fill the tanks in every vehicle, plus their spare fuel tanks, plus plastic shopping bags, and they won’t leave lines at gas stations until they’ve wrung every drop they can from the nozzle, the objective causes of shortages interlock with public irrationality, and pumps run dry within hours. In 2016, a 6,000-barrel Colonial Pipeline leak in Alabama caused fuel shortages in six states, including the Carolinas, and states of emergency in four of them. The system remains vulnerable to another hack or accident that could touch off a similar panic.
“My whole thinking here is that the outages that we saw in these states are probably 10% the result of the Colonial Pipeline and 90% the result of human behavior,” De Haan says. “You could have had the Colonial Pipeline running at 100%. There’s no way in hell they could have kept up, even with a pipeline fully open, because we were seeing three to four times the normal demand volume. … People just strained the heck out of the system.”